As a political writer, I’ve experienced my fair share of negative, hostile, and sometimes vile comments from people who disagree with me. And I’m not alone — one only needs to scroll to the comments section of most political opinion pieces to find scores of disaffected partisans spewing hatred toward the candidate being written about, and oftentimes, the author her/himself. Sometimes called internet “trolls,” the stereotype of these commenters are people (mostly men) hunkered down in their basements, posting the most inflammatory insults they could imagine to people they don’t know, under the cover of an anonymous computer screen. Oftentimes, trolls will “retaliate” against public figures who have said or done something they disagree with through violent threats, the posting of personal information, and other forms of harassment.
While there are some liberals who participate in internet trolling, the practice is widely regarded as a tool of the alt-right, including Trump supporters. In fact, Trump has practiced trolling behavior himself, giving out Senator Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number during the Republican primaries. Unsurprisingly, trolls are not among the most emotionally healthy of American, and tend to suffer from psychological defects; a 2014 study in the psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences found that internet trolls scored extremely high on narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism.
As a former Democratic pollster and consultant who voted for Hillary Clinton and writes frequently about feminism and women’s empowerment, I am a prime target for the trolls of the internet. But one of the most foul of online harassment I’ve experienced was not the result of an article I wrote, but a comment I posted on the Facebook page of a prominent Connecticut newspaper, The Hartford Courant.
In October 2016, Connecticut union groups funded a digital ad that linked a Republican candidate for state legislature to Donald Trump and the party’s attacks on women and families. The ad stirred a big controversy in Connecticut because the candidate in the ad, Dr. William Petit, lost his wife and daughters nine years ago in a grisly homicide that rocked the community. Petit and his supporters took offense to an ad accusing him of attacking women, given that his own wife and daughters were brutally attacked and murdered.
While the ad’s language might be distasteful given the circumstances of Dr. Petit’s life, the point of the ad was that candidates who were running under a ticket Trump is at the top of are certainly suspect when it comes to whether or not they will support women’s interests and rights in office.
The Hartford Courant posted an article discussing the controversy brought about from the ad linking Petit to Trump, and I was struck by the vitriol of commenters who were absolutely outraged by it. Their central claim was that because Dr. Petit has survived such a hellish personal tragedy, accusing him of “attacking” women was simply disgraceful. The sponsors of the ad initially stood by its content, clarifying that the language of “attack” was not meant to reference any personal history but rather to hold Republicans accountable for their support of Trump and his policies, which independent experts have found harmful to women and families.
To be sure, I believe Dr. Petit is an extraordinary man who has survived a personal tragedy almost no one could even imagine. And given those circumstances, the language of the ad is certainly objectionable. But I in no way believe that the creators of the ad were attempting to reference Petit’s personal history — the ad was an unfortunate oversight rather than deliberately malicious.
So in order to clarify the intent of the ad, which I felt many readers were missing, I wrote the following comment on Facebook: “If he’s running under the Republican ticket and refuses to disavow Trump, then the attack stands firm. This is a party that historically has gone to great lengths to take away the rights of women and limit their potential. Petit’s personal history has nothing to do with how he will vote with his party.”
Soon after I posted my comment, several commenters responded in anger. A few of the comments on Facebook include “You’re kind of a worthless human being,” and “The hatefulness and ugly of Brittany is written all over her face.”
But these were just the comments people were willing to put out into the public space; the private messages I received were much more depraved.
“I hope you get raped, skull-fucked and die in a fire, cunt,” said one.
Another: “You are a fucking shit that deserves the same fate as the Petit family. Given that your piece of shit face is now all over social media, you may well get what you deserve.”
I received about a dozen more messages saying basically the same thing, most containing the word “cunt,” for extra bite, I guess.
It’s hard to imagine people like these trolls exist at all, let alone that this is how they would react to a Facebook comment I wrote that contained no expletives, personal attacks, or really anything other than my opinion. Heck, unlike a lot of my writing, this particular post wasn’t even snarky.
What really struck me, though, is how misogyny is so fundamental to troll behavior. It’s not just that these trolls are hateful, but that they specifically despise women — especially women who express their opinion in the public sphere. In an anonymous poll of writers working at TIME, almost half of the women on staff had considered quitting journalism because of the hatred they’ve face online — none of the men had. At its worst, the bullying and harassment of online trolls has pushed otherwise talented individuals out of the public sphere — voices that are central to democratic discourse, but which are lost.
Advice articles for how to deal with online trolls is unanimous: ignore them, because trolls feed on attention and their ability to provoke a response. I hesitated in writing this article at all precisely because of this advice — because I don’t want to give life to some of the lowest forms of humanity that exist in this country. But I think it is important to also show not only trolls, but all of society, that women are not going to just shut up.
This election has unearthed some of the most painful diseases of American society, including misogyny and sexism. The reaction among women has been one of empowerment, of motivation to speak out and up, without fear. I am hopeful that, despite the outcome — and perhaps because of it — we will continue to amplify the voices, interests, and concerns of women everywhere.